The Oral Examination and CWL 896 (Directed Reading)

One option for your Culminating Experience is to take an oral exam, for which you prepare by taking CWL 896, Directed Reading, with the chair of your oral exam committee (the other option is to write a thesis, for which you take CWL 898). The oral exam emphasizes breadth, while the thesis emphasizes depth. Students who take the oral often find it gratifying to get a chance to explore books they have always wanted to read from a wide range of times and places. If you plan to teach in the future, your notes from these readings can prove useful.

The Oral Exam

You will be examined by a committee of two or three people, two of whom must normally be Comparative and World Literature (CWL) professors, including the chair of the committee. Usually at least one person on the committee is familiar with the literature of your Specialty Area; often that person is from the Department of Foreign Languages and Literatures. Our minimum expectations are: 1) you have read the books, 2) you have thought carefully about them, and 3) you can make connections among them. If you don't know the precise answer to a particular question, it may suffice to say something related and interesting about the text.

The exam takes two hours: the first half hour on your Specialty Area, and the remaining hour and a half on the 30 texts you have selected from the Core List (though of course we never have time for all 30).

Specialty Area: 0.5 Hours


The Specialty Area consists of 5 texts chosen by you. Ordinarily they are in a field in which you have strong interest and expertise; thus, most students will read all of these texts in the original language. You must read at least 4 of the 5 texts in the original language. The parameters and the texts of your Specialty Area must be approved by the chair of your orals committee. Submit your list of 5 texts to the exam committee at least one month before the oral exam. The scope of the Specialty Area should be comparable to that of the following examples: ancient epic of India, modern Japanese novel, twentieth-century Latin American poetry, or Russian and German avant-garde theater.

It is most intellectually enriching if all the texts in the Specialty Area are by different authors, none of whom appears on your Core List. Other configurations are possible, however. At most 2 texts may be by the same author. It is okay if books in the Specialty Area are by authors who also appear on your Core List. At least 3 of the texts in the Specialty Area must be from outside your Core List; thus the readings for the Specialty Area plus those on the Core List total at least 33.


You do most of the talking, as if teaching the five texts. We interrupt with a few questions or ask a few near the end of the half hour. Explain how you chose that area and why it's significant. Within the area, explain how you chose those particular five texts. Discuss each of the five individually and explain any relations that may exist between them, such as influence, reaction, and so on. Also compare and contrast them.


After researching the issues described under "Format," prepare a lecture on them that will last twenty to twenty-five minutes (to allow time for questions). You may use brief notes but you should be speaking rather than reading. Speak as if you are lecturing to graduate students on a field in which you are an expert; imagine an audience that may not be familiar with the particular texts but has a fairly high level of skill. Practice the lecture several times until you feel comfortable delivering it. Some students prepare a short handout related to the Specialty Area talk.

Core List: 1.5 Hours


Select 30 texts from the Core List handout ( in consultation with the chair of your committee. Provide the chair of your committee with a draft of your Core List no later than the second week of the semester in which you enroll in CWL 896. Provide your committee with the final list of the texts selected at least two weeks before the scheduled exam.


We ask you questions, jumping around within the list, both asking about individual texts and asking you to relate one to another. You will not be able to refer to notes, but most students bring a copy of their list to the exam.


In doing your reading, pretend you're going to teach these works to undergraduates, as opposed to writing a graduate seminar paper on some detail in them. So instead of depth on one issue, go for breadth on multiple issues (which is not necessarily easier). You need to consider what you think the undergraduates would need to know, not necessarily what you find intriguing. This does not mean the committee will be asking you to speak as if to students; this is just to give you a sense of what level of detail to read for. Be sure you know the characteristics of the literary categories relevant to your list, particularly genres (such as epic) and movements (such as Romanticism).

We recommend you make a sort of template for taking notes, so that for each text, or at least each text in the same genre, you'll take brief notes in the same categories. For a novel, for example, you might write down major characters, a brief plot summary, major themes, chief stylistic issues, the literary movement (if any) that the text fit into, what literature influenced it and what it influenced, how it fit into its historical moment, and so forth. With a template like this, when you are studying you can quickly see the important points. (Usually we don't ask about things like plot during an oral exam, but you do more or less need to remember it in order to discuss a novel intelligently.)

It's very important to stop reading about two weeks before your exam and to review your notes. Otherwise all you'll remember will be the last thing you read. Looking back through your notes, it might be useful to put a star by two things per text--things that might or might not be important but that interest you. That way, you will at least remember those two things, and they might then help you get into answering a question, rather than drawing a blank.

In reviewing, it might be helpful to do the following: Think of several categories into which each text falls--genre, period, nationality, social or historical situation, etc. Then make lists by categories--a list of all German texts, a list of all novels, etc. Then ask yourself how the texts in each list relate to each other. For instance, for the category “German”: How does Faust relate to Mother Courage? Or for the category “Novel”: How does Kristen Lavransdatter relate to Madame Bovary? Can you generalize about German texts? About novels? Of course you cannot ask how everything relates to everything else, but doing a bit of this exercise may help you draw some connections instead of seeing each text in isolation.

CWL 896 (Direct Reading)

CWL 896 is intended to help you prepare for the oral exam by doing some of the reading in your Specialty Area, your Core List, or both. As in an independent study, you read, write, and occasionally meet on an individual basis with faculty--in CWL 896, the chair of your committee, and, optionally, the other members of your committee. You will go over your Core List, discuss with your committee chair how many and which texts you'll read for 896, and develop your Specialty Area. You enroll in CWL 896 by obtaining at the beginning of the semester a permit number for the section of that class that pertains to the chair of your committee.

CWL 896 is offered on a CR/NC basis only. To receive credit for the course, you must pass the oral exam. A student who fails the oral exam will receive an "Incomplete" and will have the following semester to take the oral exam a second time.

The written assignments are as follows:

  1. 8-10 pages. A comparative close reading of at least three texts from your Core List, due around the fourth week of the semester. Write on at least three texts from a single genre originally written in three different languages. This assignment is like a comparative version of a response paper in which you analyze something of interest within a text for an audience of people familiar with the text. The comparison could involve thematic, formal, or other possible links. It is not necessary to research the scholarship on the texts. We want to encourage you to do the kind of broad comparative linking that is important for the reading project that underlies the oral exam, but a linking that is still done through close reading. Ideally you will be thinking this way about your whole Core List.
  2. 8-10 pages. A review essay on particularly influential scholarship relevant to your Specialty Area, due no later than the twelfth week of the semester. Discuss at least 2-3 books, or 5-6 articles, providing both a summary and an argument analysis for each scholarly work. The idea here is to provide a space for articulating some position on the background scholarly work behind the linked primary texts of your Specialty Area. It is the kind of work professors do when we prepare to teach a graduate seminar, even if we don't necessarily lecture on or discuss such scholarship in the class as such.